By Dorothy Copus Brush
What a dull world this would be if no one used their imagination. There would be no Charlie Brown and his Peanuts’ Pals or Snoopy dog. Charles Schulz put them in his comic strip in a St. Paul, MN newspaper 65 years ago.
Cartoonist Schultz began drawing as a child and never stopped. His uncle called him Sparky for the character Spark Plug in the comic Barney Google. He was a shy kid and felt hurt when he offered some drawings to be used in the yearbook and was turned down. 60 years later a 5-foot model of Snoopy was placed in the main office of the school. Imagination triumphed!
It was Walt Disney whose active imagination transported a lowly mouse into the human world. Mickey became so popular other cartoonists, puppeteers and illustrators created many more of their own characters and soon were producing shows for a brand new form of entertainment.
The pioneer in children’s television, Howdy Doody, first appeared on this new machine in 1947 and lasted until 1960. Bob Smith was a radio announcer and the voice of Howdy Doody but when the offer came to appear on television changes had to occur. Frank Paris, a puppeteer, was called to create a body to go with Howdy’s well-known voice.
All went well until Paris asked repeatedly for an increase in salary. Each time he was denied he walked off with the puppet and the show would make excuses for his absence. Although Paris created Howdy Doody, Smith owned the rights to the puppet.
Finally Paris was banished and puppeteer Velma Dawson was called in to make a new happier Howdy. This took careful planning for the time he would be absent. This time an election came to the rescue. The show reported each day on Howdy’s election travels. And now in 2012 another fanciful character, Big Bird, has become embroiled in a national election.
Clarabell the Clown, another regular character on Howdy Doody, was played by Bob Keeshan, but in 1955 he left over salary disputes and for the next 30 years was Captain Kangaroo. Millions of families began the day with the Captain and his sidekick, Mr. Green Jeans. The show revolved around the warm relationships between kids and their elders.
Bob Keeshan and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander later became partners and founded Corporate Family Relations, which provided animated versions of children’s literature to day-care centers provided by businesses for their employees.
In Chicago during the WPA days a young college-age man found work in a park theater of puppetry. Burr Tillstrom’s imagination was challenged in kindergarten when he found two toy bears in the toy trunk there and he gave them life through words. At the theater, he made his first hand puppet in 1938 and called her Kukla.
In 1947 his Kuklapolitans, Kukla, Fran and Ollie became a TV favorite for both children and adults. The woman, Fran Allison, had the same warm feeling for the characters in these electronic fairy tales as Tillstrom and became the perfect partner to bring out the best in them. Both Burr and Fran listened to their instincts and let the characters lead them.
Tillstrom said he could never get the puppets to say anything that was not true or be hurtful to anyone and, as letters poured in, he learned how much influence the shows had on the public.
Another young man was first fascinated by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen during the radio days and then equally so with Tillstrom’s work on TV. Jim Henson took a puppetry class in college and Kermit the Frog was created. A native of Mississippi, Jim played in a creek near his home where many frogs lived and Kermit was the name of his closest friend.
Kermit was the inspiration for more muppets. As the collection grew so did the idea for The Muppet Show and in 1963 that happened.
In 1969 Henson joined Sesame Street and was there until his sudden death in 1990. His adult children carried on until 2004 when they sold the muppets to the Walt Disney Company.
It was Walt who once said, “I came early to the understanding that make-believe is an important part of human nature.” Even scientist Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
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Dorothy Copus Brush is a Fairfield Glade resident and Crossville Chronicle staffwriter whose column is published each Wednesday. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.